The House of Storms takes place roughly a century or so and in the same world as MacLeod’s The Light Ages. Though it could therefore be called a sequel, one needn’t have read The Light Ages to jump into The House of Storms, as the characters and the culture aren’t quite the same. The House of Storms is not as strong as the first book, though like The Light Ages it has fully developed vivid characters; a slow, methodical pace; a complex plot, a balanced look at the “good” and “bad” guys; and lush, poetic language. It didn’t, however, maintain these strengths quite as consistently as The Light Ages did, creating I thought a noticeable flagging in the second half of the book.
The House of Storms is set in a sort of late-Victorian era England where magic (in the form of aether) and technology work side by side. England is controlled by a small group of guilds, the most dominant one of which is the Telegraphers’ Guild. Alice Meynell is the current Greatgrandmistress of the Guild, a position she’s achieved despite her low background through using sex (her husband is the Grandmaster), magic (she’s a darkly proficient adept of aether), and the not-so-infrequent murder. At the book’s start, neither her magic nor social position however can do anything to save her consumptive son Ralph, who stands to inherit control of the Guild. To save him she makes a bargain with a group of Changed (names so for the effect of a too-great exposure to magical aether). With his recovery she returns to plotting Ralph’s (and thus her) rise to power, along with increasing the fortunes of the Telegraphers’ Guild, refusing to be deterred by Ralph’s love for a common “shoregirl” named Marion Price or his increasing interest in natural science and his burgeoning theory of evolution.
The first half of The House of Storms deals with these plot points and more, while the second half swerves into a civil war between England’s East and West (partly economic, partly over slavery, along with other reasons — including some directly tied to Alice). In the war, Ralph as head of his Guild becomes a general while Marion turns into the Florence Nightingale of the other side. Armies march, society is turned over, the countryside razed, all while Alice continues to plot and manipulate and Ralph and Marion move closer and closer to a reconnection.
As mentioned, I thought the first half of The House of Storms was stronger than its second. The war sections seemed more diffuse and disjointed, less solidly set up and fleshed out. New characters were introduced, but not as successfully. And the ending seemed somewhat anticlimactic. That said, though The House of Storms didn’t match the brilliance of The Light Ages (a tough task anyway), there’s quite a lot to like here, and the book is almost worth reading for Alice herself, a character you almost can’t help reveling in despite (or perhaps because of) her murderous single-minded drive. Recommended therefore for Alice, along with its many other strengths of character and prose, though with a wisp of disappointment.
The Light Ages — (2003-2005) Alternate history fantasy. Publisher: In a bleak and gritty England, in a fantastical Age of Industry, the wealth that comes from magic is both revered and reviled. Here, an ambitious young man is haunted by his childhood love — a woman determined to be a part of the world he despises.